Staying aware of the dynamics behind public discourse: Sunday morning musings

It is Summer, the silly season. So, let me chase some chirping crickets here at AFOE with some silly thoughts on public discourse before my more interesting AFOE colleagues spring into action again. And they will, so stay tuned even if my little essay here should turn out to be a bit tedious.

Public discourse, or vox populi, is largely based on perception. People cannot be expected to do investigative journalism for each and every news item. We are dependent on what authorities tell us, be it journalists, scientists, politicians, etcetera.

For me taking part in a democracy means informing myself as much as possible, but simply watching the news is not enough. Yet, like most people I simply do not have the time, knowledge or energy to delve deeper, even when there exists a whole myriad of books, films, documentaries etcetera that pierce through perception to get at some sort of truth. Everything the critical mind needs is out there, in abundance. And with this abundance comes a second, related, problem. How to choose between all those experts and authorities? The process of finding the most objective sources possible can itself be a tremendously time-consuming investment with no guarantee for success. More often than not you have to read a book first, for example, before you can judge its merits. And considering the complexity of many real-life events reading one book will not suffice. Before you know it you can be totally engrossed in just one, tiny little aspect of “reality” without ever coming close to something like an objective truth. There is a reason why good scientists spend so much time on research alone. And even though science may very well be the best instrument we have at our disposal for obtaining a modicum of objective truth, most scientists will also acknowledge that it remains a ‘process’. The truth is never final. Something is only true until proven otherwise. However, scientific progress has proven that the process works. At least in the world of academics.

But for those of us who are not academics investment in the search for truth is a constant trade-off between engagement and the exigencies of our daily lives. In short, how much are we willing or able, both practically and empirically, to invest in a personal quest for objective information? We can never beat an academic who spends his or her entire life studying a particular subject and we shall never be able to fully know what goes on behind the closed doors of much policy-making. We shall never have at our disposal all the information necessary to make an informed choice on so many things that transcend our individual lives. In other words, the challenge is enormous.

I am not saying anything new here, but sometimes it can be good just to become aware again of our limits and, most of all, of the sobering fact that we are in a large way dependent on perception, if only for practical reasons.

Still, we do have to make choices even when we do not know the complete truth. And we are making those choices, every day. And every day people are trying to influence us in the process. Pundits, marketing gurus, politicians, corporate lobby groups, think tanks, special interest groups etcetera are all, consciously or not, promoting their brand of the truth. We do this ourselves as well. No one in their right mind will present themselves objectively on, say, a first date. We all tend to show only our good sides. Hiding, or even distorting, the truth temporarily is common sense. And who has not succumbed to peer pressure at least once in their lives? Who has not closed an eye to the truth in order to please someone or just “to belong”?

Simply put, when it comes to the truth there is always ample room for manoeuvring since there are so many “unknowns”. Those unknowns provide a margin of error where illusions, lies, distortions, manipulations and dreams alike can thrive. In a best case scenario what we do not know cannot hurt us. There is this famous saying in Dutch “liefde maakt blind” or “love makes people blind”. Sometimes this is definitely a good thing, since it can lower the threshold to a possibly enduring relationship. But let’s leave aside social interaction and let’s talk about the room for manoeuvring in public discourse.

In a worst case scenario our inability to verify everything can ultimately threaten our well-being. The best known and most dramatic example is that of political propaganda ultimately leading to massacres of minorities and to oppression. All it takes is one self-appointed authority who can, thanks to, among many other things, personal charisma, rhetoric skills and the echo chamber effect provided by a hardcore group of devoted followers, suspend critical disbelief in enough people to elevate his personal ideas to the status of a general truth that everybody can follow blindly. In extreme cases, like cults for instance, a whole group of people will deftly bridge the gap between truth and all those bothersome unknowns by declaring one authority the undisputable source of truth. They will not only suspend disbelief, they will suspend thinking altogether. It goes without saying that authorities can also force through positive developments in society, but since those are not really problematic I have chosen negative examples to illustrate my conceptual point.

The gap between truth and unverifiable unknowns creates an area of doubt, as it were, where mere opinions can become authoritative, where rhetoric skills flourish, where charism wins the day, where applied psychology rules supreme and where, cherry picked, “facts” are being instrumentalised not to come closer to a truth but to control and to dominate others mentally.

Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels understood these dynamics, Oliviero Toscani, the man behind the famous Benetton campaigns understands them and explains them well in his 1995 book La pub est une charogne qui nous sourit – advertising is a seducing corpse** -, politicians understand them and hire pr and media consultants to try and take advantage of them, media pundits understand them and use them to build up a large group of dedicated readers. In weblog discussions you will find commenters asking an opponent to “prove your point” in the safe knowledge that the opponent will inevitably fail unless he offers a multiple page in-depth analysis with loads of references and links to a myriad of different sources that will be constantly challenged.

The gap between truth and unverifiable unknowns, on a personal non-academic level, is a realm where perception is king and where authority, real or perceived and accepted or imposed, is the general in the king’s army. That is why, in my opinion, authority on this level should always be challenged and, more importantly, why we should always try to find out who or what is “leading” the vox populi. Is it hard reality or is it misguided perception?

One silly, hugely simplified example, through juxtaposition of two questions, to illustrate the theoretical importance of this concept.

Are people massively buying a certain product, hamburgers for instance, because it is really good or because some clever marketing authority convinced them it is good? Are some people afraid of Islam because Islam is a real threat or because some clever pundits and politicians managed to make them believe that?

In the case of marketing leading to mass consumption of hamburgers, perception brings about real, quantifiable consequences. People are eating hamburgers. And that is fine. But just imagine the same underlying strategy of marketing also works in the case of the perceived muslim threat. Do we really want to be “eating” muslims any time soon merely on the basis of well-marketed perception? Or do we want to know the truth before we decide to act?

Forget about Islam for a moment, it is just a silly example taken from contemporary discourse, and think about it in a more general way. How many of our policies are based on manipulated perception? How independent and reality-based are we, the common people, in our thinking? Are we always aware of the influences, overt and covert, that guide our perception of things?

I’ll give you one more example, less silly this time, from an article by former spin doctor Lance Price in The Guardian (emphasis mine):

It may be that Rupert Murdoch has never once vetoed a government decision, nor tried to do so. I just don’t know. What I do know is that, as the entries in my book show, I spent far too much time trying to stop ministers saying anything positive about the euro. When two prominent Conservatives, furious at Tory policy on gay rights and Section 28, decided to defect to Labour, I made them say that it was over our management of the economy.

Propaganda, or spin doctoring as we call it nowadays, in action. Professionals are working every day on manufacturing and guiding our perception of things. And, finally, a quote from the same article concerning the element of doubt or “manoeuvring room”:

It’s true that Rupert Murdoch doesn’t leave a paper trail that could ever prove his influence over policy, but the trail of politicians beating their way to him and his papers tells a different story.

Rupert Murdoch is arguably hugely influential, regardless of the assumptions, true or not, made in this article and, yet, we cannot “prove” the extent of that influence. Is not that interesting? Lack of objective knowledge on our part provides this man with an enormous amount of virtually unverifiable power to influence public perception and, subsequently, concrete policy. And he is “just” a media mogul. And he is more or less visible. Just imagine what “invisible” lobbyists are ramming down our blissfully ignorant throats. I am afraid imagining is the only thing we can do most of the time. And that leaves a whole lot of people with a whole lot of “manoeuvring room”, or doubt, to work with.

** I could not find the official English title of Toscani’s book. I would be very grateful if one of our readers could provide me with either the title or a more idiomatic and elegant translation. It is raining again in this so-called Summer and I am somewhat uninspired.

Vox populi versus “erudition”

Below you’ll find a reaction I posted to an excellent rant by Ape Man on what he believes are some shortcomings in the news coverage of The Economist. His rant ties into what Edward posted below in his post Bad Journalism at The Economist and raises some, in my opinion, hugely important issues. Please go and read what he and Edward have written. I reproduce my own comment here, slightly altered, because… well, I am simply excited about this and, like Nokia, blogs are also about connecting people and ideas.

My own comment is only rudimentary, think stream of consciousness, since the covered subject is immensely complex and vast, but I would like to throw the basic idea out there for all to think about. Please focus on the two quotes from Ape Man’s rant and think about the implications of it.

Ape Man: “Outside of those who read this blog and know me personally, I don’t think anyone really has much contact with the type of people that I work with.”

There are more than Ape Man thinks. I come from a blue collar background myself. But he raises a very, very important issue in this excellent rant:

Ape Man: “The Economist comes by its opinions the same way any hillbilly does. They go by their emotions and what they want to be true. Any fact that contradicts what they want to be true, they ignore.”

I am afraid this is going to be one of my hobby horses in the coming time: the role of psychology in society. It ties in neatly with demography and with something that has frustrated me personally in news coverage/analysis: too little focus on what real people actually think and feel and how this can influence, or not, events.

In Belgium a recent survey revealed that bloggers, of all people, had been more correct in predicting the outcome of the recent June elections in Belgium than established pollsters. The survey measured “talk”, the number of times certain politicians were talked about on weblogs. For me weblogs in general represent more or less the vox populi, the voice of the people even though bloggers tend to be more educated or curious than the average population. It would be great if more blue collar people got into the business of blogging and/or commenting on blogs. That way we would get a more accurate picture of what voters think and how they think. After all, they represent the largest potential voting block in any given country.

Secondly, the importance of emotions. I too, like Ape Man, come across people who vote or pontificate rather on the basis of their emotions than on actual facts. And I myself fall into the same trap sometimes, I am a human being after all, but at least I am aware of it. And I too was shocked, years ago, to find out that people who should know better do exactly the same thing. Sometimes even for a living. Media trends seem to reflect this. What is all this crap, for instance, about “breaking” news followed immediately by analysis? How can you judge the importance of an event at the very moment it takes place? Very often it is hindsight, and only hindsight, that makes the picture clear because single events are more often than not the consequences of very subtle and very complex trends (like demography).

But breaking news attracts readers/viewers and is commercially interesting. The media cater to consumers and are in a way defined by them. Who are these consumers for mass media, those with the most impact? Right, common people. Do many pundits or even politicians know what really goes on among the common people? Rarely. Or their knowledge is fragmented or based on distant memories or geared towards populism/manipulation and whatever.

Has anyone questioned, since Ape Man mentioned the name, the psychology behind a guy like Mark Steyn? It would go a long way in understanding his motives and way of thinking. And it might explain his appeal to many. In short, we should have a multi-disciplinary approach to the coverage and analysis of events. And we should always remain humble considering the complexity of it all. Human beings and their interactions are complex, it is almost impossible to create stable models for them that predict everything, or even anything. And I am not even mentioning the element of “chance”.

People and societies move, and change, all the time to the rhythm of their daily experiences, perceived or real, and their emotions/needs/desires. I could go on and on about this, even when I realize that the complexity of it all is almost overwhelming, but we should definitely put humans back into the equation, be it through demographics and/or psychology and/or sociology. No matter how tricky interpretations in that area are.